Iraq: Toying with polygamy as solution for war widows

Publication Date: 
January 26, 2011
Iraq: Politicians have suggested financial incentives for men who marry widows

Years of conflict in Iraq have left the country with more than one million war widows and a shortage of young unmarried men - pressures that may be bringing about the return of polygamy.

Hanan lost eight members of her family in the war, including her husband, and was left to bring up three children alone.

The experience has not broken her. She continues to work as a hairdresser in her noisy and lively home on Haifa Street in Baghdad.

But she still needs a "man-shelter", she says - and this is why she ended up married to a married man.

"When he proposed to me, he said he was divorced," she says.

"But after we got married, he got back together with his first wife, because he has children with her."

He now stays with Hanan once a week. But while she has only reluctantly accepted a situation where she shares a husband with another woman, some in Iraq are actively promoting the idea of polygamy.


It's a practice that became less common in the 20th Century, but politicians put forward a proposal last year to offer married men financial incentives to take on a second wife.

Under current Iraqi law, polygamy is illegal unless authorised by a judge - though it is part of the country's Islamic tradition and has been backed in recent years by some religious groups.

In Iraq's largest province, Anbar, a charity called Angel of Mercy has been helping widows remarry for the last four years. Dozens of marriages have been completed, with the widows often marrying their husband's relatives.

Women's leaders are divided on the subject.

Nada Ibrahim, a member of parliament, supports the idea of polygamous marriage in principle - as long as a husband treats his wives "with justice".

However, she also believes that the government should provide more support for widows, to make it easier for them to survive without men.

"Widows are often young and don't have jobs, health insurance or social security. We shouldn't encourage them only to get married," she says.

Hana Edwar of the Amal charity also believes that the government should help widows financially to enable them to decide their own fate. She's firmly opposed to polygamous marriage.

"It's about women's dignity," she says. "Women need to be educated about their rights."

Women in illegal second marriages are often "in an inferior situation where they are unprotected and prone to abuse by men", she adds.

But one of Hanan's reasons for remarrying was that she felt unprotected as a widow.


"I used to feel vulnerable with no support, afraid that anyone could attack me and anyone could harass me," she says.

"A man's protection is like a shelter. And this is what a woman needs from a man."

Unlike some widows, she is capable of supporting her children alone.

Her second husband, Mostafa, a friend of her first husband's, offered her much-needed support after his death in 2005. They married a year ago.

She says she had to accept his reconciliation with his first wife, because she could not come between him and his children.

Another factor influencing her feelings was her own pregnancy with Mostafa's child.

"The little foetus in my womb ended our problems and made us accept things and stop arguing," she says.

"In the beginning I used to feel angry. I used to cry. But I learned how to cope. What do I gain from my situation if I keep feeling angry and sad? I need to accept the reality."



Iraqi widows

  •; background-position: -1200px 5px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">There are estimated to be about one million widows in Iraq
  •; background-position: -1200px 5px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">One in 10 households in Iraq are headed by women, rising to 18% in some districts
  •; background-position: -1200px 5px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">In cities across Iraq, women are harassed for engaging in their professions, wearing clothes deemed inappropriate, or simply stepping out of their homes